Last year, I decided to be a superheavy for a while, and I pushed my bodyweight up while I was focusing on squats. However, I wanted to make sure that I could still do pullups at a higher bodyweight. One of the things we focus on at Asheville Strength is what I like to call “basic human skills.” These are things like pushups, pullups, dips, pistols, and other bodyweight movements that we believe human beings should be able to do. If I was going to gain weight, then I still needed to have these skills. Last summer, I could do 9 pullups at a bodyweight of around 180 lbs, and that was enough to make me happy.
Then, I took about 9 months off from training.
When I started training seriously again in April of this year, the first thing I did was focus on squats. I also decided that I’d keep pushing my bodyweight up, since Nick and I both wondered if I could really get to 200 lbs and how that would affect my lifts. Once I got my squat over 300 lbs, it was time to get back to some basic human skills.
Before I got back on the pullup bar, I knew I needed to follow my own rule and make sure that I could do at least 10 awesome pushups. I spent a few weeks doing pushups every day until I could do multiple sets of 10 with ease. And, then, it was time to head back to the pullup bar…
Before we talk about pullups, I will reiterate that if you cannot do ten consecutive pushups from your toes, I will not put you on a pullup bar yet. If you cannot do 10 pushups, then I don’t think you have the shoulder and “core” strength to be able to safely do a pullup. I wrote about that recently HERE.
Just trust me on this one. If you try to do this program before you can do 10 pushups, you’re going to be disappointed with the results. I am not putting any hard and fast rules out there about weight, but if the limiting factor in your pushups is your bodyweight, then I will say that this program isn’t magic. Yes, I weigh 200 lbs but I am also about 5’9. Can you be a 5’5 woman who weighs 250 lbs and do pullups? I don’t know, but probably not. At some point, you might have to accept that you cannot pack on enough muscle mass to move your current bodyweight through space in the way you want.
And, really. Let’s think about what is important here. If you or the person you are coaching is obese or cannot do a single pushup, then a pullup is not an appropriate goal and there are probably a lot of other issues that need to be addressed first. There are steps in between that need to happen before you aim for a pullup. This article is not for those people. This article is for someone who is legitimately ready to start working toward a pullup.
I know there are some articles out there about not using bands for pullups. I use bands for pullups, and let me tell you why. I treat pullups as a strength exercise. By using bands, you can vary the intensity and volume in an organized way just like you do for squats. Many times, when someone has been working on pullups for a long time with little success, it’s because they are doing it in a haphazard way. If your sets and reps and bands and training days are totally random, you aren’t going to see the results you want. So, if you don’t like bands and would rather do negatives or jumping pullups or something else, then that’s cool. But, this program isn’t that.
You either need two or three bands to start, or you need the Rage Pullup Assist. We use the Rage Pullup Assist at my gym because it is easy to gauge – you either need one, two, or three bands for your sets, and all of the bands are the same resistance. Plus, the Pullup Assist is usually cheaper than buying multiple, separate bands through Rogue or MuscleDriver, etc. You can find it HERE. If you are at a gym that already has a bunch of bands, that’s perfect. But, if you have to buy your own bands, I would totally use the Pullup Assist.
Now, comes the fun part! If you aren’t familiar with the Nemesis rep schemes, you might want to read about Nemesis HERE. You don’t have to read it to understand this pullup program, but it’s good background information, and it explains why we program the way we do.
The first thing you need to do is figure out the lightest band that you can do pullups on and the max number of pullups you can do on that band. So, if you are using the Pullup Assist, can you do a pullup using one band? If not, can you do a pullup using two bands? If you can only do a pullup using three bands, then I want you to check yourself. Can you really do 10 pushups from your toes? Because three bands is providing a HUGE amount of help.
Start with the lightest band that you can do a pullup on whether it is one pullup or five. If you can do more than five on that band, check to make sure you can’t use a lighter band because you probably can. Also, you can use this program if you can already do a few unassisted pullups. Just count unassisted pullups as your lightest band and go to one band for your next sets if you have to.
If you’re familiar with the Nemesis WODs, think of this like Volcano or Montezuma. Using the lightest band, do a max set of pullups. Let’s say you get three. Rest and repeat using that same band. You are going to keep doing sets on that band until you either can’t do a single rep or until your single rep is a “grinder.” It’s really important to keep your reps solid. Stay tight, no kicking, no swinging, no cheating! If you have to cheat to get a rep, it doesn’t count.
Keep going on the lightest band as long as possible. Then, add a band for more help and repeat. Let’s say you can get seven reps there. Keep going until the number of reps has gone down, and STOP ONCE YOU HAVE REACHED 30 REPS (or LESS, please keep reading). Seriously people. We are trying to get stronger here. We are not trying to get rhabdo. Use your brain and stop if something ridiculous starts happening like arm swelling. I mean, I have never had someone screw themselves up from pullups, but weird shit happens, and you have to be an adult and keep yourself safe. You can make progress with fewer than 30 reps. Frequency is important. To be clear, I never get close to 30 reps in. I hover between 10 and 20 with maybe a rep out at the end as described next. If you are starting off only being able to do a few reps at a time, then don’t aim for 30. Aim lower, and work your way up to more.
Once you are done, you can do a rep out if you were only using one band for the first sets. I wouldn’t do this every day, but you can do a single rep out with two bands. I’d just keep it to a max of 10 reps, which means you’ve done no more than 40 reps on those days and probably less. That is a crazy amount of volume, so again, be safe not stupid.
Now, here is the important part. YOU’RE NOT DONE. You have to do some bodybuilding. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. If you have access to a lat pulldown machine, do some lat pulldowns. Grab some dumbbells and do front raises, lateral raises, and shoulder presses. And, do curls. DO CURLS. If you don’t do curls, you are not doing the program. I’m not going to give you exact sets and reps for bodybuilding, but it’s bodybuilding. 10-15 reps. Get da pump going. I’m being totally serious. I do curls every day. Do at least one set of pushups and throw in some hanging leg raises or other ab work. You can rotate what bodybuilding exercises you do, but do not skip bodybuilding.
That’s pretty much it. If you can do this every day, do it every day. Remember, “More isn’t always better, but it usually is.” – Nick Horton. But, if you are going to do this every day, then I would be careful about total volume over the course of a week. You do not need to do 30 pullups every single day. You don’t need to develop an overuse injury in order to succeed and get pullups. Do quality reps, and do them often.
Can I do pullups weighing 200 lbs? Yes. It is easy? Not yet. But, it will be easier tomorrow.